Editorial: Is that Kevin Spacey behind all those Apple products? (updated)

Up until this one specific camera shot, 31 minutes and 42 seconds into the sixth episode of House of Cards, it had all been going pretty well. The endearing evil of the series' anti-hero Francis Underwood (Kevin Spacey, there on the left) had carried me through the first five installments at a brisk pace, to the extent that even the most blatant Apple and Sony product placements had largely gone unnoticed. (Underwood: "Is that a PS Vita? I oughta get one of these for the car.")

I happen to be from the UK, where paid product placements on TV shows were banned until 2011 and where we're particularly sensitive to such things, so I must have been engrossed. But then this desk shot happened. My disbelief stopped suspending and promptly clattered to the floor. It had nothing to do with Apple specifically, or even the principle of commercial gadget cameos. My paranoia runs deeper than that, and it has so far prevented me from going back to watch the rest of the series. Read on and I'll explain.

Is that Kevin Spacey behind all those Apple products?

If you haven't heard about it already, House of Cards is a big deal. As a streaming exclusive, funded with $100 million from Netflix, the series is free from many of the norms of TV drama. Individual episodes didn't have to be edited to fit in with scheduled slots or ad breaks, for example, which gives the director more freedom. Alongside other productions from streamers like Amazon and YouTube, this is a taste of the future. It's good TV, it's important TV, and that's why I'm so annoyed.

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Firstly, there's the basic improbability of seeing devices laid out like this, in what is supposed to be a congressman's office. Just taking the devices that are angled towards Underwood, I count three iPads and three iPhones. The aide sitting across the desk adds two more iPhones and another iPad.

I could potentially be wrong about a couple of those handsets, since they're in cases, but I've watched the scene in slow-mo they all look like iPhones to me. That makes nine Apple devices for two people, with each device powered on and burning its battery simultaneously. For the first few frames of the scene, one of the tablets is shown being used to scan radio frequencies, so it's justified as part of the plot -- and busy gents like these are bound to carry a few devices around with them. But seeing so many products from one company laid out like this is still jarring to me, especially when Underwood is shown in other scenes using a BlackBerry.

It's almost like there's some agreement in place that prevents the producers from showing devices from different manufacturers in the same shot. Indeed, Apple's monopoly over this particular sequence is total. Look back at the screen grab at the top and you'll see that Francis Underwood is on the phone -- he's talking to his wife, who's shown in the next shot using a white iPhone. A few seconds later, the henchman gets up to make a call and we get a different view across Underwood's study which reveals that his main computer is an iMac.

Is that Kevin Spacey behind all those Apple products?

In my case, the problem wasn't only the implausibility of the scene, but also the distracting, unanswerable questions that started swirling around in my head afterward. I wanted to know how this had come about, but I also knew that I'd probably never know. Product placements are never explicit, even when they look obvious. UK-made TV shows display a special logo at the start and end, but that doesn't apply to US imports like Cards and in any case it doesn't reveal the conditions of any agreement -- did a certain number of devices have to be shown onscreen, or depicted in a certain way? Did money or valuable goods change hands? When the fabric of the story gets ripped apart like this, who am I meant to blame? The director or some suit standing behind him?

"Product placements are never explicit, even when they're obvious"

I've emailed Apple, Netflix and the production company, but I won't hold it against them if they don't reply. After all, my central question is pretty obnoxious. As I've said, I'm not concerned with product placement (which we actually enjoy covering in our Screen Grabs series), so much as excessive, story-destroying product placement. Who's going to admit to that? I'll update if I hear anything back, but in the meantime I'm going around in circles.

The most conspiratorial explanation I can think of it is that Apple paid for the desk shot and demanded to see 11 of its products within the space of a few seconds. But that explanation is just as unlikely as the scene itself, because Apple has previously made it clear that it doesn't pay for product placements. One unexpected revelation from the Apple v Samsung courtroom saga, as reported by SFGate, was the admission that Apple puts a lot of stock in product placement as a marketing tool. It employs someone to inject Apple devices into Hollywood. But that's not the same as paying cold hard currency for specific levels of exposure.

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According to Brand Channel, Apple products appeared in only 17 percent of blockbusters in the first nine months of 2012, compared to 43 percent of top movies in 2011. This "fading" of Apple's dominance supports the notion that the company handles product placements in a reactive manner -- they get a request for props and, if they like it, they oblige. When Apple's coolness sags in the minds of filmmakers, so does the number of placements, and there's no evidence of Apple throwing money around to reverse that trend.

At the other end of the spectrum, the most innocent explanation I can think of is that the director of this episode (Joel Schumacher, no less) wanted to make an exaggerated, perhaps even comedic point about how the internet is changing the way we work. The general notion of new media washing away old habits is central to House of Cards -- so maybe Schumacher threw in these devices to reflect that. Maybe his crew and his continuity people failed to notice or care that they were all Apple devices. Personally, I'm too cynical to go for that. Come to think of it, I'm not even convinced that the internet theme in this series is particularly innocent either -- it jibes too closely with what Netflix is all about.

Is that Kevin Spacey behind all those Apple products?

Anyway, it doesn't matter how this happened. The point is it did. For me at least, product placement has proved itself to be a house of cards. Take it too far and the whole thing implodes, but you never know exactly when that point will be reached. For people who tend to notice gadgets and brands -- which must be a large proportion of the audience on a service like Netflix -- the risk is that we'll be alienated from the story. More fundamentally, we won't know where the marketing ends and the thing we purchased begins. Whether it's an $8 monthly streaming subscription or a $650 iPhone, it's important to know which part belongs to us and which part continues to be a tool for someone else.

A structure, situation, or institution that is insubstantial, shaky, or in constant danger of collapse -- Merriam-Webster

New content providers stand to revolutionize TV, but they need to remember that the old rules of storytelling will never change. I want to enjoy the spectacle of the villainous Francis Underwood treating people like idiots and taking them for a ride. I don't want to fret over whether some producer is doing that to me.

Update: Although I don't have any official responses to report, I've been in touch with a couple of people who worked on this scene and who knew about the product placements. I have total respect for them for contacting me and standing up for their work.

The upshot is that the show was given free equipment by Apple for use as props, and from what I hear the value of that equipment was significant compared to what was provided by rival manufacturers -- broadly in the low tens of thousands of dollars. However, as I'd already suggested in the article, no money changed hands. Most importantly, there were no rules guiding how Apple products should be placed -- I'm told that was entirely up to the director and his crew, who gave screen time to Apple as a "thank you" for the props.

With regard to the specific scene / final straw that led me to write this piece, I'm told there is a background (and largely off-screen) explanation as to why so many devices were in use simultaneously. Since the two men were waiting on word of a particular event within the story, and since the aide at least was monitoring police radio channels, the characters had borrowed extra tablets and phones from colleagues to help with that task. They were Apple products by and large, because that's what the prop guys had at their disposal and because the other main phone brand in the show -- BlackBerry -- didn't seem appropriate to that function.

So there we have it. I've been persuaded to move on and watch the rest of the series. I'm doing that, and I'm glad for it. The product placements still jar with my (British) sensibilities and I stand by my main argument -- but this is an industry-wide issue and not a slant against the individuals who worked hard to make HoC such a good show.